At Kars4Kids we were pretty impressed with Annie Fox: her blog, her books, her podcasts–they were all chock-full of information we thought our readers would not only enjoy, but actually have a pressing need to know. It’s not easy raising children in this plugged-in 21st century with its ever-present technology. We had Kars4Kids communications writer, Varda Epstein, give Annie a call to find out how to teach stranger danger to kids; how to counter the constant stresses of being connected to technology 24/7; and much, much more.
Varda Epstein: Reading your blog post It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, about the little girl who was afraid to greet you even though her father was at her side, a question comes to mind: what is the right way to teach children about strangers? Should we make children fearful of strangers? How fearful should they be?
Annie Fox: Wasn’t that little girl’s response crazy? I mean her daddy was there. I mean: Daddy is here to make the judgment call—to protect you. Her reaction was so over the top it made me sad. I write fiction but I could not have made this up.
But the next girl coming over the hill was bright and friendly, and also with a parent—with her mom. Of course we need to teach our children to be aware: who you engage with when you are on your own. I mean that’s the thing, when you are on your own. We don’t want them so fortified in their fear that they cannot make eye contact with a stranger on the street—so that we are so paralyzed about things that rarely happen.
“We’ve killed the good in our quest for the perfect and I think that’s really tragic.”
We’ve killed the good in our quest for the perfect and I think that’s really tragic. If we are so “safe” that we can no longer smile at someone in passing. I think we’ve lost a lot of what it means to be human.
Varda Epstein: How do we convey that to our children?
Annie Fox: Well, this happened a couple of years ago.
Afterwards I told my own children what had happened and used the experience to start a conversation. I asked them, “What did you think about these two kids?”
You want there to be balance. If all you have is fear when you’re teaching concepts to children, you’ll have a fearful response. I am sad for those people, those who are filled with fear, on many levels, because they will find it hard to find joy in their lives. To bring up a child with such paralyzing fear is damaging to that child.
Varda Epstein: In your post Sweetie, it’s time for the Talk. I was struck by this passage: “They say, ‘What you don’t know can’t hurt you.’ That might be true, occasionally, but when it comes to teens, what they don’t know about sex, puberty, sexual orientation, can and often does hurt them.”
But how do you know when do you begin? How can you introduce the subject without exposing them to things you don’t want them to know about? How can you protect kids on the Internet?
Annie Fox: Any kid who has access to the Internet is going to Google porn. Instead of getting nuts about it, it makes sense to have a series of discussions about it: “Here’s what this is. You saw it and you can’t un-see it. But let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about sex and sexism and our values as a family—about sexual expression.”
As a parent educator and as an educator of teens I always talk about sex in the context of a trusting relationship
Sexual images are everywhere. We need to educate our sons and our daughters about the overriding sexual culture—about how sex is used to sell stuff. About what we can do as consumers whether it’s as consumers of products or consumers of content so we can live with ourselves. If I see a commercial during a sports broadcast and I’m with kids of a certain age, I might ask them, “What are they selling here?”
I would use it as a teachable moment: “Why is this woman standing there in her underwear? What is she wearing? Kids don’t even notice it. It’s like a glass of water with a pinch of salt that you almost can’t taste. It’s like what you’re seeing has subtle messages in it. And what choices did the advertisers make in creating their ads?
We need to have good discussions with our kids. To deconstruct the messages in the media as it sells itself to us constantly. And if we did a better job with that, we’d have less sexism in society and in how boys treat girls and in how girls feel about themselves. It’s all connected.
“I like to say, ‘Catch your child in the act of doing something right.’”
I like to say, “Catch your child in the act of doing something right,” and make sure that you let him or her know that you’re very pleased with what they did. In other words, praise the behavior you want to see more of.
We have normalized sexism and with that we have boys growing up feeling they can touch girls they don’t know and rape women because we’ve lived on a diet of objectification.
Varda Epstein: What’s the best way to keep the lines of communication open with your teen?
Annie Fox: Timing is everything. So if you haven’t seen your kid for a bit and they’ve been through God knows what dramas in their day, that’s not the time to bombard them. Kids are more willing to speak in the short term if they’ve been fed (!) and have had a chance to decompress from their day. But part of getting them to listen is found in presenting yourself as a nonjudgmental person who is easy to talk to—who has compassion for the stuff they’re going through rather than invalidating what they’ve said or saying, “You did WHAT?”
If you keep jumping in they’re not going back to talk to that person. It’s much harder for 21st century kids so there needs to be more compassion. They never catch a break from their peers because they’re so connected all the time. They need us to be more than an echo chamber which is what their friends provide.
There’s a sort of foundation you lay as a parent. But that’s your starting place.
Think about yourself at that age. Ask yourself a question: what did I want more from my mom and dad and what did I need more of and after you get a few answers for yourself, grade yourself. How am I doing as a parent? Am I giving them more of what I wanted as a teen and how can I do better . . . if I’ve been too busy, too opinionated, too scared: the antithesis of what your kids need. And when you make a mistake you say to yourself, I need to apologize to them. You say, “I’m sorry. I made a mistake”
Wow, will that get their attention! You say to yourself, “I’ve just learned something about myself as a parent,” with a true commitment that you’re going to do something to fix things. Ninety-nine percent of us have wonderful loving intentions with our kids but stuff gets in the way.
Varda Epstein: In your blog you used the Olympics to offer several teachable moments. Where one might have seen failure, you saw success. Adults will easily see your point, but how do you get kids to move on from failures?
Annie Fox: Take out the word “failure.” It’s so finite. So you missed the mark. We miss the mark all the time. That’s life. I just did a podcast, Raising Resilient Kids, with Dr. Deborah Gilboa. It’s about getting up again. It’s grit.
It’s also being able to understand what that missing of the mark taught you.
There ought to be something you learn every time you miss the mark. For example, if something came out of your mouth that hurt someone’s feelings. You missed the mark. But the moment you realized, “Oops,” stop and think about what were you feeling the moment before you made the hurtful comment. Were you jealous, angry? Was this your justification for being snarky? The next time you’re feeling jealous or unappreciated or whatever, rather than lashing out with sarcasm: what could you do instead?
And that’s what I’m all about. Missing the mark and then recognizing you’ll have more chances.
Varda Epstein: Well, you don’t always have more chances. For instance, a parent that dies, God forbid?
Annie Fox: The person may have died. You may have missed that opportunity but you have learned to be a more compassionate person. Maybe not with that person but with another person: to be more kind, more loving, more respectful.
Varda Epstein: I miss my mom, was a blog post I found particularly touching because I lost my father suddenly when I was very young, only 13.
Annie Fox: I lost my father when I was fifteen.
Varda Epstein: So you know.
Annie Fox: Yes.
Varda Epstein: I like what you said here: “Is it time to open your door?” How can a child honor the memory of a parent without staying mired down in sadness?
Annie Fox: Emotions come and go continuously. And we have within us the seeds of compassion and the seeds of anger and hate. The way we live our lives, depends, in part with which seeds we nurture. What you water is what will grow. Look up Thich Nhat Hanh at www.plumvillage.org. He is a Zen master, a peace and human rights activist.
[The exact quote from Thich Nhat Hanh: “We know that if we water the seeds of anger, violence, and fear in us, we will lose our peace and our stability. We will suffer and we will make those around us suffer. But if we cultivate the seeds of compassion, we nourish peace within us and around us. With this understanding, we are already on the path of creating peace.” V.E.]
The other part of this parenting thing is modeling.
So if you scream at your kid to be nicer to his little brother or sister that’s not likely to teach him to be kinder and more respectful. You’ve got to be kind and respectful as you teach. If you see your child with his or her friend and that friend is consistently unkind. You might say to your child, “I’ve noticed that friend is not kind. Tell me why you enjoy being with him/her?”
You’ll be able to draw a line between that kid and his parents. This is a lesson that comes from you to them and most of it is what they observe us doing.
Varda Epstein: That’s all very well and good when you’re working on yourself—but what about when your spouse presents a poor example to your child?
Annie Fox: You can point out respectfully to your spouse, in private, that what he is doing is not helpful to the children.
Varda Epstein: You talk a lot about stress. Is this a 21st century issue?
Annie Fox: I think you know the answer to that, don’t you? Yes. That’s a big thing with me.
Varda Epstein: So, what are some of the effects of stress? What is your best tip for distressing?
Annie Fox: You can go back to the connection issue. When we are interrupted all the time by text and incoming email announcements? It’s stressful. It’s like someone poking the side of your head. All. The. Time. Those text messages that put someone on the spot: “I heard you said something to so and so about me,” oh my God! How can they relax?
To me, the thing about stress is its negative impact on our ability to make good choices. If we’re trying to nurture the seeds of connection within us while we’re in fight or flight mode, we’re not going to make good choices. When we’re in flight mode, we just want to survive.
So it’s the knee-jerk reaction that we return to. The more stressed we are, the more well-worn is the pathway to “Attack” mode. We all know people who have short-fuses. Those who snap so easily, who rant and rave and carry on over what appear to be “small things.”
People like the little girl who was afraid even though she was with her dad; like the guy who finds lukewarm coffee in the restaurant an attack and goes crazy.
Varda Epstein: What is the biggest challenge facing parents today?
Annie Fox: The intrusion of social media in the lives of their children. They used to call TV “the second family.” I think today social media is the second family and for some kids the first family for its prominence and measure of influence.
Have a family discussion. You’re paying for it: the internet, the phone bills.
And what is it preventing the family from experiencing? The sexualized images. The rudeness and lack of civility in the public discourse. If this media diet isn’t all that you want your children to be consuming, than you have to wake up and offer a balance in the direction of the values you want to promote.
“If you’re going to impose limits on connectedness you have to pair this with the true desire to fill in the time.”
If you’re going to impose limits on connectedness you have to pair this with the true desire to fill in the time. The interactions which you have as a family must be very gratifying for the children—as gratifying as those interactions they have with their peers.
Put limitations on their plugged in time and at first you’re gonna get a lot of pushback. It’s like taking drinks away from an alcoholic. It’s an addiction. So if you’re waking them up by telling them, “All I’m seeing is the top of your head while you’re texting,” you’re going to fail. You need to say, “I’m not taking this away to punish you. I’m trying to set some reasonable limits so we can regain some of the time we have lost being together as a family.”
You need to say, “I’m not taking this away: I’m trying to gain some time together as a family.”
They might say, “What? You want us to look at each other, Mom?”
If you’re changing the program you’ve got to offer them something or you’re going to get, “Great. Is that what you wanted, Mom? Now are you happy?”
It’s all that stuff that kids do to make you feel unsure. And then you think to yourself, “Great. He’s mad at me.”
If we institute a no-texting rule at the table, my teenager needs to know why I’m taking this extra measure. They don’t see it. They don’t get it. All they see is that you’re taking something away from them.
They don’t see that you’re giving them family time which doesn’t seem valuable to them. What can the family do together—beyond the initial resistance, beyond “taking my phone away?”
They need to feel that they’ve gained something of value. Something they may not even have realized they were missing. Real connection with the family. So the next time you say, “Let’s go for a walk in the hills,” they’ll say. “Yeah. I want to do that.”
Varda Epstein: You blogged about National Unplug Day—unplugging looks a lot like the Jewish Sabbath, Shabbat, when observant Jews refrain from using electric appliances and so forth.
Annie Fox: Well yeah, the idea of a Shabbat ethos is out in the universe and I think all of us need reminders to do that. To unplug. It’s really, really hard.
Varda Epstein: What about books? As in reading actual books with pages? Would that be something we could encourage as an activity on National Unplug Day?
Annie Fox: Sure. I’m a real reader. Right now I’m reading David Copperfield on my Kindle. So yes to books—reading is important. I believe in books. But then, I also make bread. The great thing about making bread is that you can let it rise and punch it down in between your digital responsibilities.
Varda Epstein: What is the most important piece of advice you have for parents?
Annie Fox: I believe that our primary objective as parents, other than keeping our kids safe, is to teach them to be good people. That’s why I wrote my book, Teaching Kids to Be Good People. We can do all kinds of things for our children, provide them with all kinds of opportunities. But if we have not figured out a way to instill good character traits, then nothing else on their “resumé” counts.
Annie Fox, M.Ed., has earned international respect as a parenting expert, family coach and trusted online adviser for teens. Her primary work is found in guiding teens to manage their emotions and relationships with confidence in themselves. Her newest book, Teaching Kids to Be Good People, helps parents navigate tough contemporary parenting challenges.